Published: August 2014 – BoatU.S. Magazine
© 2014 Troy Gilbert
Major Brad Boudreax banked his Air Force C-130 and immediately headed south after takeoff, below him in the ICW were legions of boats ranging from 60′ sportfishing charters to 20′ sailboats fleeing what he was about to fly into – a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.
As a pilot for the legendary Hurricane Hunters out of Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi and a native of Covington, Louisiana – Major Boudreaux knows all too well about the periodic hazards of the boating life on the Gulf Coast, but also understands that he couldn’t live anywhere else. Boudreaux transferred from flying B-52 bombers to the Hurricane Hunters in 2007 specifically to get access to the water and return to the lifestyle on the Gulf Coast.
“Since I can remember, I have always been on a boat. I was driving boats before I could legally drive a car.” Boudreaux leans against his trailered 24′ Glacier Bay and is one of those guys who is ‘boat rich’ or “boat poor” depending on how you want to look at it – he has 5. He could tell boating stories all weekend, “I started water skiing when I was six years old on the Tchefuncte River in Louisiana and I was slaloming by the time I was nine. Now I have my kids out here wakeboarding 3-4 times a week on the Tchoutacabouffa River behind our house here in Biloxi.”
Formed in 1943 on a bar room dare between two Air Force pilots, the Hurricane Hunters mission is to fly directly into the deadliest winds and weather of Atlantic season hurricanes and take a multitude of atmospheric and meteorological readings. Their modified C-130’s are filled with specialized equipment that helps to gauge speed, direction, intensity, potential landfalls and if necessary, evacuations throughout the Southeastern and Gulf Coasts of the United States. All of the pilots, crews and ground support personnel live in hurricane country – their mission is personal.
Boudreaux adds, “When storms build in the Gulf, that means I’m working and so for my family we have a plan that we have to set in motion out of necessity way before anyone else and that, of course, includes a plan for securing and trailering the boats.”
On a recent flight into a tropical storm which was rapidly intensifying into a Category 1 storm, Boudreaux had one of his most dangerous experiences on a mission, “This storm was rapidly building with heavy rains, hail, turbulence and lightning. We started experiencing heavy downdrafts from a severe thunderstorm and a mezocyclone, basically an airborne tornado, suddenly developed in front of us and we couldn’t evade. It first tried to turn the airplane upside down and when we wouldn’t let it do that, it threw us into a nosedive.”
Major Sean Cross knows these experiences all too well, both in the air and their effects on the ground. He and his family went through Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi and were transferred to Atlanta along with the entire Hurricane Hunter squadron who continued to operate without missing a beat even while their homes and property and the base were laid to waste. “Our home was damaged, I mean basically if you don’t live on the water down here, you can see it. Everyone was affected.”
Major Cross grew up in New Orleans trawling and shrimping with his Paw Paw on a Lafitte Skiff and eventually inherited the boat. As he got older he moved on to Chaparrals, waverunners and today runs a SeaRay 260 Sundancer that he and his wife pleasure boat on throughout the Gulf’s barrier islands. “We keep the boat in Destin, Florida during the summer months and my wife and I spend a lot of time out at Crab Island in the Destin Pass. We live for those long weekends.”
As with any military organization there is a lot of camaraderie, and unit cohesion exists whether on duty or not and that includes on the water for these Air Force pilots. Major Boudreaux and Major Cross both live on the same river in Biloxi, Cross explains, “Most people walk their neighborhoods and see their neighbors, but here on the Gulf Coast we take the waverunners out with the kids and meet up with the other waterbugs. The kids enjoy themselves and the adults stop in for some type of refreshment.”
Lt. Colonel Jeff Ragusa was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana waterskiing on the False and the Tickfaw Rivers and today lives in Biloxi, “You will feel out of place here if you don’t fish and certainly if you don’t boat.”
Ragusa keeps his Bayliner at the Keesler Air Force base marina in dry storage and is able to leave his “office” and be on the water in 30 minutes. He and his wife waterski, but primarily take out their high school aged son and his friends out kneeboarding, but their real passion is for waterfront dining. “We love finding restaurants along the coast where we can take a sunset cruise, dock up and have dinner. We go as far as Gulfport and Ocean Springs along the ICW, but the Biloxi back bay has so many restaurants with docks and it is so convenient, that we are out there at least once a week.”
All of the men and women that constitute the Hurricane Hunters execute and understand their mission as with any branch or division of the U.S. military, but there is an especially personal aspect to what these crews do. Ragusa explains, “Our unit has a certain advantage that most units do not have, and that I wish they did. We live in this community here in Mississippi and on the Gulf Coast and our mission directly affects our neighbors. Everyone in the military has people and individuals that come up and thank them for their service, but here we have people that come up to us in the grocery store or at our son’s school and thank us for what we do not only for this country, but for our local community.”